Libraries

Though the libraries don’t really move they do pop up around the city in new locations. This is another great idea that has been promulgated in Bogotá: that of the (not sure what to call it) book stand. In an effort to promote literacy and reading among citizens the city has designed and operates mobile libraries. I only passed a couple of these but they were intriguing. This one was at the National University, not a place I would expect you need another library or would be looking to improve literacy. I knew that they had invested a lot of money and architectural knowledge in new library buildings. Penalosa, especially, sees these as public/shared space where people can come together and equity is improved.

They’ve also combined the library with the park, once again emphasizing this focus on public space and combining it with their literacy objectives. The sign reads “A stop for books, for parks.” The yellow panels open up when an attendant is there and there are books in there. It all works through the city library system so if you have a card issued at the main library you can get books from any of the stands, Gratis! (Free!). Also, not sure if you can return them anywhere or if you have to bring them back to the same stand. Colombian commenters, help me out here.

I like this idea and everytime I think about libraries I say to myself (aloud) “that’s so cool, you can just go there and get books for free, what a great idea.” But then I never go and get books. I look at material on the internet, download articles, or buy a magazine. That’s not even mentioning all the reading for school I have and never get to. So…. would this idea work here in the US, not to increase literacy but just to get people to pick up books more, which I guess is ‘increasing literacy’?

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Lost

Today I had the unfortunate experience of reliving a childhood horror as an adult. I got lost. Of course we’ve all been lost at some point, even in our adults lives: trying to find the way to a remote location on some mountain roads, or renting a car on a business trip. It’s also often a good way to see a new place, just go get a little lost and walk around. Usually this does not cause too much panic and is easily resolved. Even a wrong turn to what seems like a bad part of town is pretty easy to get out of. Now we’re mobile and well connected. We carry cell phones that memorize numbers for us, gps that tells us where to go. Seldom do we feel that ‘lost’ feeling.

My memories of being lost take me directly to K-Mart. I’m not even sure if it ever really happened or if it was at K-Mart but I imagine having to go to someone that works there or a desk and ask them to page my mother. And I am probably crying. After that I am never really sure how I am received. For some reason, half of my fear of being lost is trying to explain how it all happened to the people who are (possibly) looking for you. Luckily, everything usually turns out ok but I can’t help but think that I did something wrong. What I realized today is that this is especially true as an adult.

Perhaps it’s because I should be able to take care of myself, resolve situations on my own, that I felt so foolish when it happened today. For the last two days I have been visiting parks all over the city to take photos for my work here. I have a taxi driver who drives from place to place, but is not completely familiar with where we’re going. Today I set off into a large park and asked him to meet me in-between two other parks three blocks away. I became disoriented as I walked around the park taking photos. One edge of the park twisted to the match contours of a river, the other filled some empty space in-between blocks.

I choose the meeting spot because it would be easy to recognize as the two parks were directly across the street from each other. As I left the big park and headed a couple blocks to what I thought was west I encountered some trouble finding my destination. Here I began to realize what was going to happen should I fail to find the parks. Soon, I was lost trying to figure out how to use the names of the parks I was heading for and the one number I knew to find my driver. I found several parks but not the two I was looking for as I walked back and forth between where I expected the parks and where I last saw someone I knew; stopping along the way to try and call the number. After three attempts I was able to get someone and get another number for my boss, who hired the driver. After more walking, contemplating my location and the whereabouts of my driver and pondering curiously what was being done by others involved, I eventually reached my boss on the phone. My plan was to ask her for the driver’s number but she had already talked to him, called my roommate, was driving around looking for me and (may have) called the police. Finally I met the driver back where he had dropped me off.

Walking around and searching for what may have been two hours, I never felt scared or even lost. The whole time I knew where I was in relation to where I started, I knew I could get home if it got dark, I just didn’t know where the parks were or how to call off the manhunt. The most anxious part of the experience was being found. I braced myself for a good yelling at. It never really came, but for a moment I sensed that the driver wanted to lay into me. I’m sure he (Pedro) was glad to find me and felt some relief but also I think it’s easy for people to react with anger after they’ve spent so much energy worrying about someone and everything turns out ok. Especially for something sa stupid as this. Certainly, I feel horrible for making everyone worry and panic a bit. And this is the worst part of getting lost. I’ve tried to apologize for troubling everyone but still I feel really guilty and completely incompetent. This is the part that K-Mart and today have and that a stroll around a new place doesn’t. You’re lost to others. My apologies again. If I could do it all over again (Tuesday), I’d have Perdo wait where he let me out.

Cometas

Something has happened here, the weather has changed, I’m really busy at work, and addicted to desserts.

First the weather, sometime in the last week, almost on cue with the arrival of August, the skies became more blue and the sun came out a bit more. Everyone told me that August is the Month of the Kite here, in part because of the winds that come and blow the clouds away. So far it’s true. This weekend I’m heading to Villa de Leyva (not far from Bogotá) for some hiking, camping, and relaxation. This small town is also the host of Colombia’s most famous annual kite festival. Though it is not this weekend, I am sure the place will not disappoint.

Part of the reason I am excited about this trip is that it will last until Tuesday. There is another holiday here and everyone has Tuesday off, so some people (like me) are making it a 4 day weekend. It’s great except when I turn to my calendar and I have little time remaining here. My project is picking up and starting to roll. Part of it involves sitting down with some of the City’s decision makers with regard to parks, and so that I must get down before I leave, other GIS and DB management, statistical stuff can be done from Atlanta.

Finally, I hinted at it earlier but I am getting used to the sweets and desserts that are a staple of the Colombian diet. Is this a good thing? It’s a delicious thing. Aside from desserts the most amazing thing about the cuisine is the array of fruits that exist here. It doesn’t help that I am bad with foods in the first place. I don’t know the names of a lot of fruits and vegetables in English, but I believe that the fruits here don’t have names, as far as I know, in the US and that is making it hard to remember what I’ve tried. Maybe I’ve had tomarillo, ochuva, lulu, guanabana, lucuma, and maracuyá but I am not entirely sure. I will try harder to remember exactly what I am eating and drinking. If it’s a fruit in the produce section, it’s a juice in the restaurant.

Of course, this was written on a rainy morning and I just had a donut.

Villa de Leyva
Festival de las Cometas
Photos from the trip

Media Maraton

I would not have believed it, had I not seen it with my own eyes. It’s amazing how experiencing something, even in the second person, can completely change your ideas of what’s possible. When I was visiting Machu Picchu a few years back I had this feeling, where wonder and confusion collide and even in your imagination you find it difficult to recreate. Someone told me we’re so far removed from the possibilities of man power, en masse, that we can’t really picture how stones were moved up there without machinery. In a weekend a few firsts I was happy to experience that feeling a few more times.

On Thursday night I finally managed to find my way into a futbol game, but perhaps not as you’d imagine. We played at a place called Futbol Cinco and there were ironically four fields. They were located in a former warehouse in a well-to-do neighborhood. Two fields on each of two floors with parking on the ground floor. The group I was a part of paid for an hour on the field and has it reserved every Thursday at 9. I think this is an idea waiting to happen in the US. Where, in Atlanta, could we find a location ripe for such a proposition? You need a structurally sound building and a crowd looking for places to play (places there are lit, dry and warm well into the night after work). Hmmm, maybe somewhere on Buford Highway, but I could also see something like this occupying the second and third floors of some space in Atlantic Station, make it all sleek with lots of walls of glass so people outside can watch and the fields can be used for anything, indoor football or futbol, field hockey, etc. B. Leary, call me.

On Saturday I went for a tour of a few parts of the city with a friend from the university. We started from my place in the south and headed north on Transmilenio. This is Bogotá’s Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT) modeled after a similar system in Curitiba, Brazil. If you’re in a traffic-choked US city or in a planning program you’ve probably heard the term thrown around. I had heard much talk of it in Atlanta, but this was my first time aboard for a ride. It works like a subway with buses running on dedicated routes. In Bogotá you enter the system at stations and pay a flat fare to go anywhere the system will take you. I have to see that it is very clean, efficient and pleasant. Also, it’s far cheaper than putting in subway infrastructure.

For lunch on Saturday we went to a Bogotá landmark, everyone knows it, and everyone knows it a little bit differently. It is actually just outside Bogotá in Chia and it’s called Andres Carne de Res. There is little I can do to describe it, expect to tell you that it was enormous, loud, delicious, exciting and I could have spent another 3 hours there. Jorge, who took me, told me that all told the restaurant employs an estimated 1,000 people; that includes cooks, waiters, parking attendants, actors, musicians, admin, etc. I went for lunch and every account I’ve heard since labels it a completely different brand of fun after dark, but I would say it’s a great time whenever you go.

I finished Saturday with a Futbol game in the city. Bogotá has two teams, Santa Fe and Millonarios and Jorge is a huge Santa Fe fan. Unfortunately, the home team lost to the defending league champ from Medellin, Nacional. But I did hear a lot of bad words and got to experience my second South American live game. The first was in Buenos Aires two years ago. In both case I did not have a camera. In Argentina I thought better to leave it in the hostel not knowing where I might get tickets and this time I was advised that it might get confiscated because it contained batteries that could be thrown.

All of this was a the day before my first running event, the Bogota half marathon (and 10K). It also happened to be a day after I re-ruined my left ankle playing basketball. When I got home from my day out on Saturday I removed the soccer sock that I had tied around it for compressions and it looked like, well, like this. I took what little ice I could scrounge up and started RICE again. I had felt good most of the day but when I saw this I had second thoughts about running on it. For two days I slept with it raised, actually with both of my feet raised, as I sleep in a tapered sleeping bag. On Sunday it had evened out but was still a bit big, still without pain. So I went for it.

http://nikeplus.nike.com/nikeplus/v1/swf/scrapablewidget/rundetail.swfMy goal was to finish in under an hour and it took me a grad total of 57:30. I felt good about it. At first it was slow going as the streets were packed with people and there was little room to make any moves, but that actually made the trip go by faster. Also, the first 5K wound through tight streets and there was no way to see how far you had to go when you looked ahead. Toward the finish at Parque Simon Bolivar, the buildings disappeared and you were offered a clear view of thousands filling the street for the next kilometer in front of you. Around 40,000 people participated in this one, now I can start thinking about the full 21K next year.

By the end of the weekend I had to completely alter my understanding of so many things. Maybe we could play soccer at Atlantic Station or build a subway with a bus. I still couldn’t understand who would throw batteries at a sports event (Ohio State Fans). Maybe I could even run a marathon, or at least a half; IronMan is still a long lost Inca capital for me.

Bogotá Media Maraton
Marathon Pics
Andres Carne de Res
Santa Fe Futbol
Transmilenio

20 Julio

In a recent post I mentioned briefly that I’ve been exposed to some new Colombian media since arriving. Over the weekend I added to my repertoire, so to speak. Sampling the nightlife, the recreation and the television of the country.

Friday was a holiday, Independence Day. More than anything else, the day seemed an excuse for the country to show off its military, which is not to say that this is a departure from the habits of other countries. In the build up to the day I heard about parades and street closures as well as annual (rumored) guerilla attacks on cities. None of these happened (in Bogotá at least). On the day before, I talked a bit with a med student who is also in the Navy, or La Armada Nacional. He gave me the full scoop on exactly what was going down. Normally Bogotá is the place to be for a military man on Independence Day, however, this year thousands of servicemen from every branch were invited to festivities being held on the Colombian island of San Andres. He told me to make sure and tune in on TV to catch the pageantry.

And I did briefly. Then later I caught bits and pieces of the recap on the news and discovered that the decision to move the party was a thinly veiled affront aimed at Nicaragua. (hear me) San Andres Island is really far away from Colombia; so far away that it’s close to Nicaragua. So far, in fact, that Panama and Costa Rica don’t even try to get involved. So what better way to passively escalate the international tension then to amass military forces on the disputed territory for a Colombian celebration? I think this remote (relatively inconsequential) island situation is much more interesting than the Argentine-English dispute that keeps popping up in the news. At least Colombia is claiming an island in the same hemisphere.

Aside from the news and military operations, I have had the chance to sit down in front of the TV and catch some other offerings. The first thing I have noticed is that there are certain things you can always find. Soccer, a game show, some Latin music and movies. I think I’ve seen more MLS coverage here than in the US (and the same amount of Red Sox games). Granted, this week saw David Beckham’s debut against Chelsea. On side note, the most impressive thing about this event was the turnout and the enthusiasm of fans at a soccer game in the US not involving a Latin American country. Leave it to LA to get celebrities (or as they’re called there, governors) to a soccer game.

Ok, back to the TV. I have to say that I am impressed with the selection of movies here. I can almost always find something that I could easy sit in front of and forget my troubles for two hours, though I refrain. The game shows are actually pretty interesting. Sure they have who wants to be a millionaire but they also have this twisted game show where people undergo a lie detector test backstage. Then they are brought out in front of the cameras and their family to reveal all. They are asked questions from the backstage interview and they have to say whether or not they are true. They are always true, and that is what troubles me about the show. It is not so much a test of wit or skill, rather it is a contest to see who is willing to be dragged through the mud with their family in tow. I only caught a glimpse tonight (I think it’s on everyday) but a guy outted his best friend who is gay. The other day they were asking a woman questions about whether or not she was making up excuses so that she did not have to go visit her mother who was sick with cancer. A women’s voice comes in and always states “es verdad”.

On Saturday night I made it out to Zona Rosa for my first taste of the nightlife and what the kids are calling Aguardiente. A night out in Colombia must consist of dancing of some kind, and there are several types. Everyone seems to know the many different types of music which sound about the same to me (gringo): salsa, meringue, regaton, cumbia, vallenato, currulao… Before I sound too amazed at the finely tuned ear of the Colombian people I should say that it’s like this everywhere. If you know jazz you start to get really picky, about bop, cool, acid, lounge, new age etc. Likewise, you won’t find too many of my peers calling Kanye, gangster rap. Electronic music is definitely like this; “techno” encompasses a lot more for some than it does for others. In any event, the sustained exposure to the Latin vibes gave me a chance to being to pick up on the subtleties. My personal favorite right now is salsa but young people here think it’s a little too old fashioned and I blame Tito Puente.

San Andres Island
Colombian Reality TV Game Shows
Aguardiente

Exito


I first heard about Exito on Friday when I asked someone where I might go to buy a pair of socks. I figured that there must be a small tienda or slightly larger, more specialized footwear store or even an entire district not too far away. In Colombia, like many other cities in developing places, the density is impressive and most people walk so it’s not uncommon to be able to find what you need in a short trip. As I hinted at, sometimes you see guilds pop up. Down the street from me exists a strip of about 20 optical shops in a row. In old Hanoi the streets still retain the names (and some of the shops) of the businesses that reside there. If this type of thing exists and it’s a specialty item, like glasses, a lengthier trip will often be made to take advantage of the market forces and the expertise. But this is socks.

Saturday I went on a hike through the countryside with a group here at the University. Many students carried plastic bags to hold their lunches and garbage as the day went on. Many of the bags said Exito on them, including one I had grabbed from home that morning. Now my interest was piqued, Exito seemed to be a staple of Colombian commerce and something I should see first-hand.

Sunday I stumbled upon Exito. I was walking down the main street and passes what looked like a renovated building (about half a block) that was being made into a mall. As I passed I saw the sign for the parking garage in the signature yellow. In this regard it reminds me a bit of Ikea with their blue but what people most often relate it to is Walmart because they carry everything from food to appliances, car parts and even socks. While that is one good reason that Exito is Wal-mart, there are several good reasons for why it is not. First, I walked there. Second, I had to enter the pseudo-mall and then go up an escalator to enter the store, which was not immediately visible from the street. Third, I had to go up more escalators to get to the second floor. This is what a Wal-mart would look like if they tried to put one in Manhattan. The fact that they’ve adapted their store design to fit into the dense urban fabric already would get them kicked out of Sam’s club faster than the Walton’s make their next billion. They are also set as anchors in the new malls that Bogotá seems to abound with. Finally, Exito is not the cheapest of the cheap. Colombians think it is surprisingly expensive (n=1).

A couple similarities do exist. As I said they carry everything from bananas to baby clothes to refrigerators. I went in looking for socks but found myself walking past a sad wall of HDTVs with nothing to broadcast in HD. Static-y programming looks the same in HD. Also, there are examples that resemble the US, big box, counterparts. I am interested on whether the design of the stores has evolved and they are moving away from the stand alone big box or if it’s just opportunistic. Also there are others following suit. Carrefour is one similar store that I have only seen through car window, standing alone, across a sea of parking. I have also been told of a Home Depot mimic called Home Center. I remember similar stores in Santiago, Chile. The fact is that in many cases the old, downtown sections of these cities remain dense, grid street patterns of development with multiple uses, however as the cities expand, people gain wealth, cars gain prominence and the scale of things change. I think paying close attention to these different development patterns is like reading the rings of a tree.

I have heard why I should hate Wal-mart and of movements to stop them from coming into neighborhoods, but maybe that’s just the way things are going. A lot of people do shop there, but is it because they have few other choices? Also, with everyone driving their cars is the big box thing so bad. What if we completely rethought the way we designed and arranged shopping centers? Take the mall in DC as an example; nobody has ever thought to come up with a pejorative term for those ‘big box’ monuments and museums that are all over the place. Of course I’m being a little extreme and the Mall doesn’t exactly plentiful parking… getting items from the store to your car or home could be troublesome but people could play kickball between Office Depot and Petsmart. Others could relax next to the reflecting pool that abuts Best Buy and Lowes. Just an idea. Of course, when we start making monuments out of shooping centers we have bigger problems. But sometimes it already feels that way.

Frontline had a really good episode on Walmart awhile ago, it can be seen here:
Frontline Walmart Episode

Happy Planet

During a discussion about the project I am working on here in Bogotá, the professor here introduced me to a document produced in the recent past called the Happy Planet Index (put out by the The New Economics Foundation. It describes itself like this:
The Index is built from three different indicators, two of which are objective: life expectancy and the ecological footprint – a measure of our use of environmental goods and services. The third indicator is people’s subjective well-being, or ‘life satisfaction’. (It should be noted that the was people report their life satisfaction corresponds to objective facts such as their mental and physical health.)
They’ve set the target for 83.5, yet the highest is 68.2 attained by the island(s) nation of Vanuatu. The lowest is Zimbabwe’s 16.6.
The Happy Planet Index came about in a discussion about some life satisfaction questions that are part of a questionnaire we’re using for our analysis. Olga, wanted to show me the one-sided responses they’ve received to a question about how many times the respondent has been sick in the last 30 days. Over 60% said zero days. I thought and still think it’s in part the form of the question but she then pulled up the Happy Planet Index report to show me how ‘happy’ Colombia apparently is. The country is THE highest in South America, and arguably the best rating overall with a score of 67.2.

#1 in Asia? Vietnam. Hmmm, all places we (US) have a history with and that (for us) carry a stigma, and all places I’ve gone to spend some time. But the answer must be a bit more complicated than that. Neither of those points was mentioned in the report. To be certain, if you’re renowned for poverty, overthrown puppet governments, or drug wars and then you start to experience some economic recovery then those improvements are likely much more noticeable and the people in those places can get happy about that. Of course that doesn’t explain the whole ecological footprint segment. I expect that the footprints are both are getting larger. Olga told me that Colombia has been able to keep large amounts of the country naturally preserved. This in part is because of paramilitary, nonetheless those places aren’t being developed.

I think both Colombia and Vietnam have significant natural resources and their governments have done some things right. Bogotá, or at least its leadership has taken steps to give a better life to citizens. This speech from one of the city’s most famous major’s lays out some of the logic behind his actions to improve equality and quality of life for the city’s citizens. He even talks about economics of happiness and its role in public decision making. It doesn’t sound like typical politician speak. Or is it becoming more common. Quality of life rumored to be an asset for attracting economic development. You’ll even hear it in Atlanta when people like to bring up the abundance of trees and lack of cold weather. The Beltline is expected to preserve and even enhance this ‘quality’ of the life in the city. And in both of these cases it seems the power and influence of mayors may be on the rise.

But, back to the Happy Planet Index… Where is the US? Keep in mind that we’re probably at a point where incremental increases in national prosperity matter less to us individually but we scored a red 28.8.